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... rather than improving. The nature of the illness itself is not diagnosed but the symptoms are described in stock terms identical to those of the layman Anaathapi.n.dika in the preceding sutta. Both men complain of intense pain in the head and stomach, and throughout the body generally. The head pain is said to be like having one's head split open with a sharp sword, or having a leather strap progressively tightened around the head like a headband. The stomach pain is compared to having one's belly carved up by a sharp knife, in the way a butcher might carve up an oxe's bell! y.
The body pain is likened to tha t of being roasted over a pit of hot coals. The head and stomach pains are attributed to the action of 'violent winds' (adhimattaa vaataa), but no specific cause is mentioned for the more diffuse but no less intense bodily pain.After describing his condition, Channa declares 'I shall use the knife, friend Saariputta, I have no desire to live.' On hearing this the immediate response of Saariputta is to dissuade Channa from taking his life:Let the venerable Channa not use the knife! Let the venerable Channa live-- we want the venerable Channa to live! If he lacks suitable food, I will go in search of suitable food for him. If he lacks suitable medicine, I will go in search of suitable medicine for him. If he lacks a proper attendant, I will attend on him. Let the venerable Channa not use the knife! Let the venerable Channa live-- we want the venerable Channa to live!In response to this entreaty-- which I believe encapsulates the normative Buddhist stance on suicide-- Channa explains that he lacks neither food, medicine or care. He then remarks, somewhat obliquely, that he has long served the teacher with love as is proper for a disciple, before repeating his intention to 'use the knife':Friend Saariputta, it is not that I have no suitable food and medicine or no proper attendant. But rather, friend Saariputta, the Teacher has long been served by me with love, not without love; for it is proper for the disciple to serve the Teacher with love, not without love. Friend Saariputta, remember this: the monk Channa will use the knife blamelessly.There is no logical connection between the three ideas in this passage (I have suitable food -- I have served the teacher -- I will use the knife) which suggests some textual interpolation may have taken place. More important, however, is that in claiming that his his action will be blameless (anupavajja) Channa now introduces a moral dimension to his earlier declaration of suicide.Or does he? The commentary offers an interesting gloss on the term anupavajja, the key word which will later be used by the Buddha apparently in exoneration.
The commentary offers two synonyms for anupavajja in this context: the first is anuppattika meaning 'without further arising,' and the second is appa.tisandhika which means 'not leading to rebirth.' Read this way Channa is saying 'Saariputta, I will use the knife and not be reborn-- remember I said this.' According to the commentary, then, Channa is making a factual statement-- perhaps a prediction-- rather than passing a moral judgement on suicide.After this the subject changes and first Saariputta and then Mahaa Cunda speak to Channa on matters of doctrine. Both elders then get up and leave, and soon afterwards Channa 'uses the knife'. Saariputta then approaches the Buddha and-- clearly believing that Channa was not an Arhat-- asks for information about Channa's post-mortem destination (gati) and future course (abhisamparaaya). The Buddha's response betrays a degree of impatience and implies that Saariputta should already know the answer: 'But surely, Saariputta,' he says, 'the monk Channa told you in person of his anupavajjataa!' What does anupavajjataa mean here? Since Saariputta's question was about rebirth, the context supports the commentarial interpretation of anupavajja as meaning 'not being reborn' very well and makes the Buddha's reply perfectly intelligible. The Buddha is saying something like 'Wake up, Saariputta-- you are asking me ab! out th e rebirth of someone who told you himself he was anupavajja-- not going to be reborn!' To take anupavajja here in the sense of 'blameless' would not fit the context nearly so well, since Saariputta was asking for simple factual information on Channa's destiny, not a moral judgement on the way he died.Immediately after this exchange Saariputta uses the term upavajja again in the context of Channa's association with certain families in the Vajjian village of Pubbajira, Channa's home town. He refers to these families as upavajjakulaani. The point of Saariputta's remark here is not clear, neither is the meaning of upavajjakula. It could mean 'blameworthy family' or it could mean-- as the commentary suggests-- 'a family which is to be visited.' The issue, as the commentary explains it, concerns the fault of overly-close association with kin (kulasa.msaggadosa), a fault to which Channa seems to have been prone.We cannot rule out the possibility that despite the macabre context obscure puns on the meaning of upavajja-- the sense of which it is now difficult to recover-- are being made throughout this passage.
The most likely explanation for Saariputta's remark about the kinfolk, however, is that he is pointing to another connection in which he had heard the term upavajja linked to Channa's name. By doing so he defends himself against the Buddha's criticism that he should know Channa's fate. He is saying, in effect, 'Well, yes, Channa did tell me his death would be anupavajja, but I wasn't exactly sure what he meant by that since I have heard this term used of him in another context in connection with visiting certain families.'The Buddha then concludes the discourse with the statement quoted at the start which has been taken as condoning Arhat suicide. I think that when we place the Buddha's statement in context, we see that the Buddha is offering not an exoneration of suicide but a clarification of the meaning of anupavajja for Saariputta's benefit. This is how his statement might be translated:True, Saariputta, there are these clansmen and relatives who were visited (upavajjakula) [by Channa], but I do not say he was 'saupavajja' on that account (ettaavataa). By 'saupavajja' I mean that someone lays down this body and takes up another.
That is not the case with respect to Channa. Channa used the knife without being reborn (anupavajja). This is how you should understand it, Saariputta.It is noteworthy that in the Sa.myutta version quoted above, the term anupavajja is contrasted not as we might expect with upavajja-- the normal word for 'blameworthy'-- but with saupavajja, a word which seems created specifically for this context, since the only two ocurrences in the entire canon are found in the passage just quoted. This seems to confirm that upavajja is not being used here in its everyday sense of 'blameworthy,' and that the contrast intended is between anupavajja as 'not reborn' and saupavajja as 'is reborn.'By taking the key term anupavajja in the way suggested by the commentary, which I think fits the context well, the Buddha's concluding remark becomes not an exoneration of suicide but a clarification of the meaning of an ambiguous word in a context which has nothing to do with ethics.The CommentaryThe main text makes no reference to Channa gaining enlightenment. We know that Channa died an Arhat by inference from the Buddha's closing statement, although there is no corroborating evidence that Channa was an Arhat and no indication of when he became one.Curiously, it is this question of the timing of Channa's enlightenment which concerns the commentary most, and it devotes a good deal of effort to show that Channa was not an Arhat before he committed suicide. It seeks to establish this in two ways.First, it volunteers a rationale for the specific teaching given to Channa by Mahaa Cunda. The commentary suggests that Mahaa Cunda gave this teaching because he deduced from Channa's inability to bear the pain of the illness, and his threat to take his life, that he was still an unenlightened person (puthujjana). The attribution of this motive to Mahaa Cunda is speculative, since the text says nothing at all about his motives for selecting the teaching in question.
Nor is Channa referred to in the text as an 'unenlightened person' (puthujjana).Second, the commentary reconstructs Channa's last moments of life to make it very clear that enlightenment was gained at the last second:'He used the knife' means he used a knife which removes life-- he cut his throat. Now in that very moment the fear of death possessed him, and the sign of his next birth (gatinimitta) arose. Knowing he was unenlightened he was stirred (sa.mviggo) and aroused insight. Apprehending the formations (sa'nkhaara) he attained Arhatship and entered nirvana simultaneous with his death (samasiisii hutvaa).The claim of the commentary is thus that Channa was a samasiisin ('equal headed'), that is to say someone who dies and attains nirvana simultaneously. This reconstruction of Channa's death is likewise speculative, since no details at all are supplied in the text. Horner's verdict on the commentarial version of events is: 'The facts could not have been known, and it seems a rather desperate effort to work up a satisfactory reason for this supposed attainment.' While it seems true that the commentary's reconstruction can never be verified, the possibility of achieving 'sudden enlightenment' at the critical point 'betwixt the bridge and the brook, the knife and the throat'-- as Robert Burton put it in The Anatomy of Melancholy -- is recognised in Pali sources, and there are several examples of people gaining enlightenment just as they are about to kill th! emselves. The commentarial claim that Channa was not an Arhat until his death seems also to be widely accepted in the secondary literature. Wiltshire is of the opinion that none of the three suicides were Arhats before their deaths. Discussing the case of Godhika he writes:It so happens that in the other bhikkhu suicide cases, those of Channa and Vakkali, it is also made quite clear that they too were not arahants until the event of their death, after which the Buddha pronounces them parinibbuta.More interesting than the truth or falsity of the commentarial version of events, however, is the question why the commentary should take such pains to establish that Channa was not an Arhat. The reason would appear to be that some aspect of Channa's behaviour was incompatible with the concept held by the tradition of how an Arhat should conduct himself.
In other words, there must be one or more features of Channa's behaviour that the tradition found hard to swallow in an Arhat. I think there are three things the commentary might have taken exception to.The most obvious thing is that the tradition simply found it inconceivable that an Arhat would be capable of suicide. Although this is nowhere mentioned in the text or commentary on this episode, it is often stated elsewhere that it is impossible for an Arhat to do certain things, the first of which is intentionally to kill a living creature. Death-dealing acts of any kind are certainly not in keeping with the canonical paradigm of the calm and serene Arhat.We are given a hint as to the second reason why the commentary might be unhappy with the notion of Channa being an Arhat prior to his suicide attempt in the motivation attributed to Mahaa Cunda for providing his homily to Channa. The suggestion is made by the commentary that Mahaa Cunda gave this particular teaching because he saw that Channa was 'unable to tolerate the intense pain' and was seeking death in order to escape from it. The inability to tolerate pain shows a lack of self-mastery unbecoming to an Arhat. The danger of a lack of self-mastery is that a monk might do things unbecoming to his office and thereby cause the Order to lose face in the eyes of society.
By maintaining that Channa was unlightened until the very end, the image of the Arhat remains untarnished by Channa's all-too-human show of weakness in the face of pain.The third reason the commentary might have taken exception to suicide by an Arhat is a sectarian one. Suicide by voluntary fasting (sallekhanaa) is a well-known Jain practice, and suicide may also have been customary among the Aajiivikas. Channa's suicide, and the two others, might have been seen as uncomfortably close to a distinctive sectarian practice and perhaps an unwelcome throwback to the discredited path of self-mortification. The commentary's rejection of suicide by Arhats, therefore, may also carry an implicit rejection of Jainism.What is most striking, however, is not what the commentary does say, but what it doesn't say. I refer to the complete absence of any discussion of the ethics of suicide. We might expect at least a mention of the third paaraajika, which was introduced specifically to prevent suicide by monks. What can be the reason for this silence? Perhaps the simple explanation is that Channa's suicide was not seen to raise any pressing moral or legal issues: only if Channa was an Arhat would such questions arise. In the eyes of the commentary, Channa was an unenlightened person (puthujjana) who, afflicted by the pain and distress of a serious illness, took his own life. Presented in this light, few ethical problems arise: suicides by the unenlightened are a sad but all too common affair.
By holding that Channa gained enlightenment only after he had begun the attempt on his life, the commentary neatly avoids the dilemma of an Arhat ! breaking the precepts.ConclusionWhere does all this leave us with respect to the seventy-year consensus that suicide is permitted for Arhats? I think it gives us a number of reasons to question it. First, there is no reason to think that the exoneration of Channa establishes a normative position on suicide. This is because to exonerate from blame is not the same as to condone.Second, there are textual reasons for thinking that the Buddha's apparent exoneration may not be an exoneration after all. The textual issues are complex and it would not be safe to draw any firm conclusions. It might be observed in passing that the textual evidence that suicide may be permissible in Christianity is much greater than in Buddhism. There are many examples of suicide in the Old Testament: this has not, however, prevented the Christian tradition from teaching consistently that suicide is gravely wrong. By comparison, Theravaada sources are a model of consistency in their refusal to countenance the intentional destruction of life.Third, the commentarial tradition finds the idea that an Arhat would take his own life in the way Channa did completely unacceptable.
Fourth, there is a logical point which, although somewhat obvious, seems to have been overlooked in previous discussions. If we assume, along with the commentary and secondary literature, that Channa was not an Arhat prior to his suicide attempt, then to extrapolate a rule from this case such that suicide is permissible for Arhats is fallacious. The reason for this is that Channa's suicide was-- in all significant respects-- the suicide of an unenlightened person. The motivation, deliberation and intention which preceded his suicide-- everything down to the act of picking up the razor-- all this was done by an unenlightened person. Channa's suicide thus cannot be taken as setting a precedent for Arhats for the simple reason that he was not one himself until after he had performed the suicidal act.Fifth and finally, suicide is repeatedly condemned in canonical and non-canonical sources and goes directly 'against the stream' of Buddhist moral teachings. A number of reasons why suicide is wrong are found in the sources but no single underlying objection to suicide is articulated. This is not an easy thing to do, and Schopenhauer was not altogether wrong in his statement that the moral arguments against suicide 'lie very deep and are not touched by ordinary ethics.' Earlier I suggested that the 'roots of evil' critique of suicide-- that suicide was wrong because of the presence of desire or aversion-- was unsatisfactory in that it led in the direction of subjectivism. The underlying objection to suicide, it seems to me, is to be found not in the emotional state of the agent but in some intrinsic feature of the suicidal act which renders it morally flawed.
I believe, however, there is a way in whi! ch the two approaches can be reconciled. To do this we must locate the wrongness of suicide in delusion (moha) rather in the affective 'roots' of desire and hatred.On this basis suicide will be wrong because it is an irrational act. By this I do not mean that it is performed while the balance of the mind is disturbed, but that it is incoherent in the context of Buddhist teachings. This is because suicide is contrary to basic Buddhist values. What Buddhism values is not death, but life. Buddhism sees death as an imperfection, a flaw in the human condition, something to be overcome rather than affirmed. Death is mentioned in the First Noble Truth as one of the most basic aspects of suffering (dukkha-dukkha). A person who opts for death believing it to be a solution to suffering has fundamentally misunderstood the First Noble Truth. The First Noble Truth teaches that death is the problem, not the solution. The fact that the person who commits suicide will be reborn and live again is not important. What is significant is that through the affirmation of death he has, in his heart, embraced Maara! .
From a Buddhist perspective, thi s is clearly irrational. If suicide is irrational in this sense it can be claimed there are objective grounds for regarding it as morally wrong..
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